fri 21/06/2024

Prom 73 review: The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book 1, Schiff - glorious solo voyage across Bach's universe | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 73 review: The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book 1, Schiff - glorious solo voyage across Bach's universe

Prom 73 review: The Well-Tempered Clavier - Book 1, Schiff - glorious solo voyage across Bach's universe

Drama without fuss in a masterful journey through the keys

Sir András Schiff: epic voyagerAll images: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Amazingly, last night Sir András Schiff scored a Proms first with his performance of Book One of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Never before has even half of the sublime and seminal “48” taken the Royal Albert Hall stage in unmutilated form. The WTC could have found no better advocate.

Schiff’s awesome ability as a pianist to deliver clarity without austerity, fidelity without pedantry, made us see how this first set of 24 preludes and fugues (completed in 1722; the second book dates from two decades later) encodes so much of the fundamental DNA of Western music.

Not only across the whole span of the 24 keys, from C major to B minor, but even within the four or five minutes of a single prelude-fugue couple, Bach can take you from the solemn polyphony of a Renaissance cathedral to some avant-garde compositional workshop in late-20th century Darmstadt or Paris. A sort of call-sign for humanity, the C major opening is currently speeding across the universe on the so-called “Golden Record” of the Earth’s sounds sent into deep space with the Voyager probe in 1977. Sometimes I wonder if a super-advanced civilisation in a distant constellation will eventually hear it and say: "OK, we won’t annihilate those guys. They did this." Or, since the recording chosen was Glenn Gould’s, with all his spiky, show-off mannerisms, will they arm the invasion starships there and then?

Sir András is the anti-Gould, a pianist who shuns both modernist eccentricity and romantic grandstanding. He first recorded the “48” (he promises to return to the Proms next year with Book Two) in the 1980s, and in 2012 further refined his already poised and polished command of both volumes with a second recording for ECM. Alone in the Royal Albert Hall, a solo performer looks and sounds horribly exposed: a solitary wanderer through some plush, muffled desert. Yet the unaccompanied Bach strand in the 2015 Proms (to which Schiff contributed his lapidary Goldberg Variations) proved that the results can be quite magical.

So it was as Schiff, without score or interval, sculpted around 100 minutes of music into a perfectly paced narrative. His pedal-light approach to the WTC, restrained rubato and avoidance of flamboyant tempi can make the idea of this respectful, self-effacing Bach sound a trifle dull. Not at all: Schiff’s gracious lucidity lets the tension and drama inherent in each piece speak directly to us, as when the A minor prelude’s whirlwind of agitation yields to the monumental call to order in the fugue. Schiff’s (literally) even-handed cherishing of each part, each “voice”, meant that we could hear the creative dialogue Bach incorporates within each prelude and fugue as well as between them. So in the celebrated, prophetic finale in B minor, with its startling prelude subject that ranges Schoenberg-like over the 12 tones of the scale in an eerie premonition of the serialist age, Schiff also let the lovely, lilting answer to this disorienting gambit break through, clear but (as ever) never too loud.

With a performance style that train our ears to hear each finely articulated element and steers clear of flashy stunts, it feels invidious to pick out individual passages. Still, I loved the transition in the F sharp minor pair between the almost romantic storm-and-stress of the prelude and the lonely, yearning pilgrim’s progress in the fugue. Frequently Schiff made the WTC sing (and, more discreetly, dance), and the “cantabile” style of his aria-like subjects could guide you towards the sound-world of the Passions and Cantatas. In B flat minor, Schiff made the prelude’s song of loss and yearning sound operatic, before the hushed beauty of the fugue exposes empty spaces in the soul that (it turns out) only Bach can fill.Schiff takes a bow at the PromsThere you go: I’m indulging in the sort of programmatic waffle that Schiff’s entire career in Bach has sought to dispel. But he’s not a killjoy “purist” so much as a supremely tactful window-cleaner who wipes away the thick crust of wilful idiosyncrasy that even the greatest pianists have sometimes smeared over the WTC. “Authenticity” hardly applies here, since Bach never imagined a concert grand and the quest for optimum keyboard tuning – although it exercises some musicians to the point of obsession – seldom impinges on the enjoyment of most music-lovers now. Rather, Schiff recovers the truth of this music in Bach’s time and – without fussy archaism or academicism – sets it free to speak to ours. In G minor, as the exquisite tumbling waterfall of the prelude gave way to the slow, grave dance of the fugue – muscular, as Schiff can be, but never muscle-bound – you grasped the vast sweep of mood and tone that Bach has loaded into each step of this formal, even pedagogic journey through the keys.

Schiff’s objective, but never chilly, attention to both the melodic and the architectural qualities of these pieces generated some sublime question-and-answer moments when the prelude sang out a plea or hope that the fugue then fulfilled: none finer than in the coupling of E flat minor call and D sharp minor response. Roll on 2018, and Book Two: a standing ovation at the close showed that thousands of admirers will rejoice in his return. If Voyager were carrying Schiff’s Bach to the distant corners of our galaxy, those aliens would surely come in peace.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters